Yes, it can be expensive to eat healthy. But it doesn't have to be. Many foods are high in nutrition but low in cost. Often they'll take a little more time and effort to prepare, but they'll be good for both your budget and your body. Time is money, but time spent cooking can also be time with your family, or a connection to your culture. It's worth it. I'm going to show you seven incredibly nutritious foods you can afford to eat. And then I'll give you an easy, delicious, affordable recipe to get you started.
Affordable, Healthy, Delicious
Here are seven foods that fit into almost every budget, and that balance fresh and preserved for helping you reduce food waste.
1. Sweet potatoes: Most people eat these on Thanksgiving and then forget about them for the next 364 days. But leave out the marshmallows and butter of a Thanksgiving dinner and you've got a wallet-friendly food powerhouse all year round. The rich color of these potatoes comes from the beta-carotenes they contain, which are powerful antioxidants associated with a range of health benefits, including protecting vision  and reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer [2, 3]. The potatoes also make a healthier -- and delicious! -- substitute for white potatoes in some comfort dishes, like French fries. The best part is that in addition to being nutritious and tasty, sweet potatoes are inexpensive and long-lasting. You can buy them, save them, and roast them up whenever you want a bit of flavor. Average recent price: $2.02/pound.
2. Beans: Anecdotal evidence suggests that the oldest people in the world eat beans. Rigorous research also indicates that among their health benefits beans may be useful for controlling diabetes and reducing the risk of heart disease. High in protein and fiber, low in fat, beans are a great, filling staple. They come in a range of varieties for use in any kind of cuisine, from Chinese to Italian to Mexican. And they're cheap. If you use dried beans and soak them for 12 to 24 hours before cooking them you will both save money and break down the specific fiber in the beans that causes gas. Average recent price: $3/pound, dried.
3. Preserved tomatoes: Yes, fresh is best, except maybe when it comes to tomatoes. Tomatoes preserved by canning or other packing are affordable and long-lasting, but they also have an added health benefit. Heating the tomatoes for preservation releases the lycopene they contain. Lycopene is an antioxidant that may help reduce cancer risk. Canned tomatoes actually have an advantage over the fresh kind in this regard. A word on cans: Some cans are lined with substances that may contain BPA, a chemical potentially associated with cancer risk . Many companies are phasing out BPA, yet it can be hard to know which cans have made the transition. You can look for cans labeled "BPA-free," but most grocery stores will also have tomatoes in soft Tetra-paks, which do not contain BPA. Average price: Variable based on type, brand, and processing (whole or crushed, etc.) -- but average around $2-$4 for 16-28 ounces.
4. Eggs: One great bit of news from the last few years is that eggs are back on the menu. Cholesterol, which we used to think was always unhealthy, has in recent years been split into "good" and "bad" varieties. With this in mind, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which helps shapes the nation's nutrition guidelines, has recently recommended ending long-standing government warnings against dietary cholesterol. That means eggs are again showing their strength as a delicious, versatile, protein-rich staple at a great price. Eggs keep longer than meat -- reducing food waste -- and they can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Boil them to add heft to a salad, or make an omelette with sweet potatoes, cheese, and fresh herbs for a delicious dinner. Average recent price: $2.38/dozen.
5. Bananas: Is there anything better than a sweet, soft fruit that comes in its own disposable package? Bananas are loaded with potassium, a mineral necessary for survival and associated with blood pressure maintenance and with cardiovascular and kidney health. You lose it during exercise, so stuffing a banana in your gym bag is a great idea. Buy your bananas green so that you can eat them all as they ripen -- ones bought ripe will shortly go bad, which raises the cost in lost food. Average recent price: $0.45/pound.
6. Frozen vegetables: Again, fresh is best. Unless it spoils, in which case frozen is better and cheaper, too. For a modern family with a busy life it's hard to know when you're at the grocery store exactly what will end up getting eaten. You might buy fresh broccoli with a plan to roast it on Tuesday, only to have things come up that put that off. The longer that broccoli sits there, the more nutrients it loses; in fact, it's been losing nutrients from the moment it was picked [5, 6]. At some point, it has less nutritional value than its frozen counterpart, and probably less flavor, too. And eventually you throw it -- and the money you spent on it -- in the trash. As in most things, balance is the key. Of course you should buy fresh vegetables that you plan to eat. But only buy what you're sure you'll have time to make, and for the rest, consider frozen. Prices: Variable, but research indicates frozen is cost-effective relative to fresh.
7. Whatever's seasonal: The most affordable, healthiest and (as a bonus) most sustainable way to eat is seasonally. If you try to get strawberries in December they are of course going to cost more, come from farther away, and need to be picked earlier. That means they will have fewer nutrients by the time they get to you and will place a greater demand on the environment. Eating sunchokes and broccoli in the winter, asparagus in the spring, and corn in the summer will keep costs down as well as opening up more local options (including farmers' markets) for shopping. Sustainabletable.org offers a great online tool for this -- just enter your state and the time of year and get a list of what's in season.
Lima Bean Stew
Like I said, affordable eating may involve a little more work -- but it's work you might enjoy. Here is a recipe for a delicious, filling Lima Bean Stew that I often make at home:
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons ají panca paste (or mild chili paste)
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup water
1 cup tomato sauce
2 jars (12 ounces each) lima beans (or 3 cups frozen)
Salt and pepper
½ cup chopped parsley
This stew cooks itself -- sauté the onions and garlic in the oil with a little salt until soft and fragrant, then stir in the ajì paste and the paprika just for a minute. Now pour in the water, tomato sauce, lima beans, and a few grindings of pepper. Let that gently bubble for as long as you like until dinner -- anywhere from half an hour to an hour. At the end, sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve. You can also pair it with warm bread or put it over brown rice.
Recipe and photo from "Whole Body Reboot: The Peruvian Superfoods Diet" by Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD.
Here's the cost breakdown for the stew:
Recipe cost: $7.91
Cost per serving: $1.58
Price per ingredient:
Cooking oil -- $0.16/Tbsp
Yellow onion -- $0.44/onion
Garlic clove -- $0.12/4 cloves
Aji panca paste -- $0.44/2 Tbsp
Smoked paprika -- $0.02/¼ tsp
Tomato sauce -- $0.23/8 oz
Lima beans -- $4.49/24 oz
Salt/pepper -- $0.02/to taste
Parsley -- $1.99/1 cup, chopped
It will cost you less than $8 to serve your entire family, and you'll likely have leftovers! Add the smell of fresh food cooking on the stove... that's priceless.
Manuel Villacorta is a nationally recognized, award-winning registered dietitian/nutritionist with more than 18 years of experience. He is a trusted voice in the health and wellness industry. He is the author of Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good (HCI, 2012) Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-Aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes (HCI, 2013) and his newest book Whole Body Reboot: The Peruvian Superfoods Diet to Detoxify, Energize, and Supercharge Fat Loss (HCI, 2015).
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